This time of year, this blog focuses big time on Christmas carols—their histories, the theory behind them, their compositions, etc. One of the great joys in my life is playing and singing these carols. They are sweet but powerful musical retellings of the Birth of Jesus.
One thing I’ve noticed, though, is that churches have taken these classics and, in an attempt to check the “contemporary Christian music” box, added unnecessary and musically-boring codas to them. This past Sunday, my parents’ church’s praise team was leading the congregation in a stirring singing of “O Come, All Ye Faithful“—and then tacked on a needless extra chorus written in a modern style. The additional chorus was okay, but it paled in comparison to the majesty and tunefulness of the carol it amended. The church went from a lusty chorus of socially-distanced congregants to a few people mumbling along to the tuneless new chorus.
I’m a bit of a traditionalist, so perhaps I’m biased, but musically the new chorus just couldn’t hack it in the company of the original carol. Rather than enhancing “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” it just made the whole worse (I suppose, at best, it reminded me how good “O Come” and similar carols are compared to contemporary Christian music). Whereas the carol delivers a singable, lively tune—one that begs to be sung with lusty praise—the contemporary addition possessed that flat, almost-atonal style of melody that is popular in modern secular and Christian music. It was a two- or three-note exercise is repetition, rather than the fun, moving, shifting melody of “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”
I’ve noticed this phenomenon with other Christian tunes. “Amazing Grace,” structured on a simple but memorable pentatonic scale, is now forever chained to Chris Tomlin’s “My Chains are Gone” in every evangelical Protestant church in America. Tomlin’s chorus is at least somewhat tuneful, but do we have to sing “Amazing Grace” with his song forever?
To be clear, I’m not opposed to some musical experimentation; after all, I’m the guy who linked “Joy to the World” with Dio’s “Holy Diver.” But that was clearly a musical joke (but it also sounded amazing). I also think an enterprising composer or arranger can come up with interesting ways to weave new melodies into existing classics.
But can’t we do something better? I suppose my real issue is not with the additions as such, but the style. So much of modern Christian and secular music borders on the tuneless—melodies so simplistic, they ironically lack power or memorability. Christmas carols are hard to play and sing sometimes, in terms of the intervals and ranges they demand, but they are tuneful—you want to sing them. I witness this phenomenon with my little niece, now five, who sings these Christmas carols full-blast at candlelight services. Granted, she is musically precocious, and possesses a remarkably gifted ear for music, but she’s been belting them out since she was at least three. That anecdotally suggests a certain memorable quality, and accessibility.
By contrast, so much of modern music treats melody as an after-thought. Contemporary Christian praise music has always struck me as particularly guilty of this sin—in an effort to write anthemic choruses, the style favors overly simplistic melodies that are banal and forgettable—they’re boring! The contemporary Christian smash “How He Loves” is an excellent example: it’s a plodding, lengthy, relentlessly boring song. Yes, it has its own power, I suppose, but as someone who has performed it before, I can say that even from that side it’s a chore to get through. It’s also weird—that whole line about a “sloppy wet kiss” is off-putting, and it sounds like Jesus is the singer’s boyfriend, not his Savior (that’s another blog rant—these songs that want us to make out with Jesus; let’s try to show some restraint and respect here!).
Strong melodies are on the rocks. The upside to these dreary contemporary addendums to timeless classics is that the stark contrast reminds listeners of how a good melody transcends time and place, while a poor one erupts loudly before dissipating—like a fart in the wind.
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